Book Thoughts

American Panda Book Cover American Panda
Gloria Chao
Young Adult Fiction
Simon and Schuster
February 6, 2018
320

Mei is a Taiwanese-American teen who is following the path her parents set for her: go to MIT, become a doctor, and marry a Taiwanese boy they approve of. The problem is, she's a germophobe and is crushing on a Japanese classmate.

Oh my heart. I nearly had a panic attack reading the first chapter of this book (Those voice mails could have been lifted from my phone...). I got sucked back in time to  a place I haven't really wanted to remember. At the same time, this story is just what I would have needed to read both back then, and as I grapple with family expectations now.

I wonder what non-Asian readers might think of Mei's family, but I think Chao did an amazing job depicting both the cultural  and emotional struggles of trying to do right by your very traditional Asian family when their idea of a successful life has nothing to do with your happiness.

The story doesn't shy away from the uglier parts of the culture, but neither does it paint it as good or bad. One of the biggest lessons Mei learns is how everyone interprets a culture differently, and sometimes you have to pick and choose which things are most important to you. Mei's choices come at great cost, but any route she would have taken would have had a cost.

Despite everything I've said here, this is not a sad story! It's funny, cute, and heartwarming at the same time. It's about Mei coming into who she is, about family, about culture, about food, about university. Filial piety is a tricky subject to navigate, but Chao does it with deftness, honesty, and humor.

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Book Thoughts

The Education of Margot Sanchez Book Cover The Education of Margot Sanchez
Lilliam Rivera
JUVENILE FICTION
Simon and Schuster
February 21, 2017
304

 

This book brought back memories of adolescence, big time. On the surface, Margot and I come from very different places (East Van vs. the Bronx?!), but so much of it resonated with the experience of growing up in a working class immigrant neighborhood, and dealing with messy cultural and family expectations.

There's the toxic machismo, the importance of putting on a face, no dating (yet somehow you're expected to get married someday?), the pressure of having to succeed because there's no other option, family that's supposed to be the most important thing in your life, but no one ever confides anything important to one another. The jacket cover calls it a dysfunctional family, but I just see it as family. Aren't most of ours just as messy?

At the heart of the story is Margot trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be, and it takes both her family life and social life fracturing for her to realize what's important. Margot gets things wrong, realizes it, and tries to make up for it in the end.

I also appreciated that the 'popular' girls, while still sometimes bluntly nasty, weren't just using Margot. They were probably not the right friends for her, but they were trying to help Margot in their own way. I really dislike when stories pit girls against other girls. Female friendships are important.

By the end of the novel, there are no magic solutions to the bigger problems in Margot's life, but she's changed for the better, and this felt genuine.

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